Searching for Meaning

Choreographing of Iranian women’s migration


Searching for Meaning
by Najmeh Khalili-Mahani

Much is written about Iranian women, Iranian films and Iranian women in Iranian film. But, the lives of Iranian immigrants in their new Western homes are rarely projected. In her debut film, The Neighbor, The New Yorker film editor, Naghmeh Shirkhan, takes a brave leap to make an elliptical narrative film about the rarely mentioned reality of Iranian women’s lives in ‘exile’. A dance instructor, struggling with memories of her mother and grandmother encounters her enigmatic neighbor Leila and her young daughter. The film asks a simple question: “how liberated is an Iranian woman who breaks from the traditions of home?” The Neighbor is an exploration of love, motherhood and womanhood; a rare glimpse at the internal struggles of ‘emancipated’ Iranian women outside Iran. The film raises questions about love, fidelity, guilt, and importantly, alienation of women who are capable of striking beauty, courage, creativity and hope.

The three main characters of the film, each occupying the same screen time, often in silence, have loneliness in common. Shirin (Azita Aahebjam), is a beautiful middle aged single woman who teaches Iranian dance for a living and takes ballroom dancing lessons for leisure. Leila (Tara Nazemi), beautiful, young, jobless and depressed, lives with her 6-year old daughter, Parisa (Parisa Wahedi), in an undraped temporary home, while her husband works and sends money from Iran. Parisa, the patient child, loves drawing and dancing, and lovingly endures her mother’s long unexplained absences. The lives of Leila and Shirin cross when Parisa attempts to reach out for The Neighbor’s attention through the locked door of Leila’s apartment.

The protagonist, Shirin seems to be in an unhappy affair with a married middle aged Iranian man (why else would they meet in hotel rooms or parking lots in the middle of nowhere). Despite her affair, Shirin is cold, and she silently walks out of her relationship without a particular reason, without bothering to respond to the calls of her lover to explain why. Despite being nice to everyone, Shirin is aloof, one of those who speak less than they feel. Her one, well-expressed sentiment, is melancholy for her grandmother and grudge against her mother who had abandoned her with the grandmother as a child—presumably to pursue an acting career. Shirin’s monotonous life changes when she discovers she lives next door to an Iranian woman, Leila.

Leila is young, proud and beautiful. Leila also has an affair with the blond guitarist of the bar where she hangs out. Leila’s husband works in Iran and sends money; yet Leila’s life is disarrayed. Her child, Parisa is well loved but also neglected as she is often locked up at home patiently waiting for mommy and obediently staying quiet to not draw neighbor’s attention. Leila is “difficult”. Shirin encounters Leila for the first time through the window: looking on a quarrel between Leila and her affair, Randy (Matt Deane) who calls Leila “Difficult”—for refusing to runaway with him. Leila is highly reluctant to introduce herself or make friends with the Iranian neighbor, Shirin. Leila does not pretend to any nicety or care, yet she is not indifferent to her husband, nor entirely guilt-free about her affair. Judging from their hone calls, Leila, her daughter and her husband are a loving family. Paradoxically, Leila is mean and rough to her lover but gentle and understanding with her on-the-phone husband. Her appearance and demeanor are wealthy but her home is poor; her flat is cold and undraped and her daughter is often hungry because she has forgotten to buy groceries.

The third character of the film is Parisa, 6, obedient and loving of her mother, Leila, yet hungry for attention and for a playmate. With Shirin’s subtle longing to mother, and Parisa’s craving to be mothered, the bonding between them is immediate. Like all children, Parisa is creative and has a temple for her toys and a shrine for her family memorabilia, mostly pictures that she collages on cardboards. Parisa is smart enough to realize her mother is in a forbidden relation with an unknown man, but is also tactful enough to not ask further when refused an answer once. It seems she is also the source of contention between Leila and her boyfriend who is entirely unaccommodating of Leila’s responsibilities as a mother. Parisa is central to Leila’s dilemma: “will she runaway with her lover, when Parisa finds safety in Shirin’s motherly arms?”

Betrayal, guilt and alienation are omnipresent in The Neighbor. All characters, except the child and the grandmothers seem afflicted. Shirin sleeps with a married man in hotel rooms; Shirin’s mother has abandoned her and her grandmother; Leila cheats on her husband and neglects her child; Shirin’s luxuriou-living friend and the band of her giggly party-throwing friends betray the old mother visiting from Iran (by giving her a panoramic room on top of a high-rise, negligent to her fear of heights). There is also guilt and alienation. Both Leila and Shirin appear as passive executioners of their men’s desires. In a parallel, both Shirin and Leila break free of their affairs when the men are blissfully asleep in the post-love bed, and they slip away in the middle of the night, to go back home.

The guilt compounds their alienation. Both Leila and Shirin are incapable of communicating with their community. They cannot fully escape it either. Shirin cannot explain to her dance students why she does not want a man or a child; but she cannot refuse their invitation to the party either—only to sneak away. Leila too seems to be ‘stuck’ with her nice Iranian neighbor. Shirin has to corner Leila against a “no exit” door, to force her to a neighborly compatriotic handshake. Even after Leila recruits Shirin to babysit for her, she keeps a cold distance.

While evading their Iranian community, Leila and Shirin cannot ‘fit’ in the New World either. In the ballroom, Shirin can hardly find a dance partner (unless the teacher asks). In the bar where Leila’s boyfriend plays, she is an ignored outsider. They both feel awkward and appear unhappy through most of the film, except for occasions that they interact with the child, or dance alone. Despite apparently bleak circumstances, The Neighbor is by no means an unhappy film.

The most refreshing aspect of The Neighbor is that it is not about victimhood to which Iranian women of screen are often condemned, or of which they heroinely escape. This film is not about feminist blame, orientalist sympathy, nor about political action and spiritual resolutions. It is just a slice of life that many Iranian women identify with: about motherhoods and daughterhoods interrupted or entangled in intricacies of migration and cultural alienation. It is a reflection on home, on safety, and on solitude. Watching the film, you are not asked to judge or to understand, but to share, to feel, and to observe a reality.

The Neighbor is a sensual film. Seldom does the Iranian woman’s sexuality backdrop their cultural and personal dilemma. The sensuality of the film comes from the many close-ups on food, prepared Iranian style; on make-up worn by older and younger women, and the women-to-be, Parisa; on hands that touch or refuse touching, on ankles that dance, the waist lines that are held, the feminine curves that move to a modest traditional music, the dresses that cover them gently, the camera gazing.

This sensualization of women’s role, abstraction of their body parts or movements, makes them into props; their character is visible, yet their function and purpose somewhat open to interpretation, intersubjectivity and even voyeurist’s gaze. Shirkhan considers most of the on-screen women of Iranian films overdramatic. Her protagonists are thus intentionally minimalist in every sense. For a director who wishes her film to be seen by as many people who can take pleasure from a good film*, she achieves to take her spectators on almost two ours of scopophilic ride; letting ‘them’ decide what pleasure or self-identification they want to take home at the end.

In the question and answer session that followed the opening of her film in Montreal’s International Film Festival (August 28, 2010), in response to the lauding comments of a spectator who commented on the “language of dance”, Shirkhan confirmed that dance was an important part of her story because it gave the film the sensuality that made it accessible to all. In a later email-interview she wrote “Dance is an integral part of Persian culture. I couldn't make a film about Iranian women and not have dance be a part of it. It was a wonderful way to contrast the immobility the two women felt in their lives. They felt stagnant, and yet they both for a living, the other danced on ice as a means of temporary escape.”

But dance also works as a cultural identifier. Through the aesthetics of Shirin’s Persian dance, Shirkhan introduces her protagonist within her own native cultural context. Next to that, she shows Shirin’s graceful ballroom dance, indicating her capability to integrate in the ‘new’ culture. Yet, no one asks her to dance, thus, her efforts to get integrated fail. Leila’s cultural confusion also parallels her dance-incapacities. She does not know Persian dance (a metaphor for her unease with her native culture) but she frequently tried figure-skating (metaphor for her wish to assimilate in the Canadian culture). Nevertheless, dance is a source of solace for both women. Dance is also a place of encounter, for meeting eye to eye and bonding. This bonding with dance also captures the film spectators.

While dance is the most distinctive element of the mise en scene, other elements are intentionally minimalist. The lighting is intentionally natural, but also stylized. The film alternates between two color hues: cold and green; hot and yellow. The dance rooms (both where Shirin taught Persian dance and where she learns Western dance) are warmly colored; the hotel rooms where the couple have made love are warmly colored; the night-streets along which Shirin and Leila run-away from their lovers are warmly colored; and when Leila takes her child to the park is sunny. But the homes of both women are cold and depressive. Alternation between cold and warm pictures gives the film its visual and also thematic rhythm.

Within the limitations of the lighting and filming equipment (Sony EX3), Shirkhan has also stylized the shots. At times, camera moves fast and smooth as if on a pull (for example when Leila carries the hungry and tired Parisa in the middle of the night, looking for a restaurant to feed her); at other times it moves nervous and jittered on a close-up as if filmed with a hand held camcorder (for example when Shirin is doing the dishes after getting rejected by Leila). Such camera movements create an intimacy with the moods of the characters, making the passage of time during the screening impalpable, despite its slow rhythm and lack of action and dialogue.

Credit for shot design, camera angle, duration of a shot and camera trajectory goes to Shirkhan, who prepared sketches and storyboards for every shot, over a span of three years since she began working on the script. With an education in cinema and many years of experience in photography her cinematography is intentional: I've done a lot of camerawork and photography and so framing and choreographing shots came naturally to me. We spent a lot of time practicing the movements before each take. The fact that the camera operator was a woman certainly helped. I should also add that Armaghan has a very close relationship with the actresses. She is Azita's younger sister and Tara's aunt! She was tireless in trying to give me exactly what I wanted. I loved working with a camerawoman.”

However, the subliminal aesthetics of the shooting may be credited to Armaghan Sahebjam’s several years of experience as a wedding photographer in Vancouver and her familial relation to protagonists. Perhaps without this intimacy, it would not have been possible for a first-time cinematographer and first-time actors to provide such superb performances. The audience in the Montreal Film Festival almost gasped and aimed at a standing ovation when they realized that this was the first stage performance of the actors. Ironically, Azita (Shirin) was too stage-nervous to talk.

It is thus not surprising that Shirkhan, a relatively unknown editor in New York with experience in “editing everything under the sun”, would conjure the support of two of the most original and avant-garde artists: Amir Naderi, the creator of one of the earliest masterpieces of Iranian cinema, The Runner (1985); and Mohsen Namjoo, one of the most creative musicians Iran has produced in recent years. Naderi co-produced the film with Shirkhan and Namjoo provided its original score.

In a video interview, talking about the film, Namjoo stated that what caught his attention about The Neighbor was the fact that Amir Naderi was going to produce it: “It must be great, if Mr Naderi has given it endoursement”, he said, “but despite all its cinematic achievements, about which I am not an expert, what captured me was the dignity and the sincerity of the film and its people. I tried to convey that dignity in the music I made for the film.”

Although both Naderi and Namjoo were present at the opening of the film in Montreal film Festival, the star of the evening were Shirkhan and her three female protagonists: Parisa, Shirin and Leila (mother and daughter.) In fact, Namjoo, a rock-traditionalist musician of unmistakably distinct style, had achieved his aim of blending his music with the gentle rhythm of the film, its plot and the characters; so much so that it did not have any excessive nor prop effect. The film also did not resemble any of Naderi’s work, which often accentuate the rough edges of life against the vulnerabilities of the flesh of a sole man, as he does in the Runner (1985), or in Manhathan by Numbers (1993).

A fan of Goddard, Varda, Fellini, Antonioni, (early) Truffaut, Garrel, Rivette, and Naderi (although not at all the same) Shirkhan aspires to tell her stories without artistic compromise. When asked about intentions of film and her audience, Shirkhan responded that she wished to make a film for anyone who appreciated a good films and made something that even her two young sons could watch multiple times. She made a film to appeal to a wide audience. Despite the film being in Persian, the dialog was made so minimal that one could figure it all out without subtitles. Although she left Iran when she was five, her visual memory of Iran is vivid. She has recently begun going back home and the video shots of Iran have been invaluable in conceptualizing The Neighbor.

The characters in the film are inspired from women she has known: her mother, her grandmother, her mother's closest friends. All strong, willful, independent and a bit lost; caught between two very different worlds. Yet, Shirkhan intends her film to be universal: “Women all over the world share the same inner struggles, and we're all searching for meaning in our lives. Some of us have the added baggage of having to live far from our families and homelands, but ultimately we have to make a decision to adapt and move forward. I think this film is a modern story that will resonate with many people of different backgrounds.

The Neighbor (2010, Canada). Screenplay, Director and Editor: Naghmeh Shirkhan: Producers: Amir Naderi & Naghmeh Shirkhan. Music: Mohsen Namjoo.


Esfand Aashena

Sounds interesting. Hopefully we'll get a chance to see it.

by Esfand Aashena on

Everything is sacred


What an EXCELLENT, BEAUTIFULLY written review

by ComraidsConcubine on


Finally! A real film review.

I suspect that the writer has received some form of film education, at the very least, as this is the first time I have read an actual proper professional review of anything on this website. 

Thank you for your work and hoping that you have been paid for your persuasive work contribution. (I was about to roll my eyes thinking 'oh god not another women's thing', but I shall definitely be on the look out to see this film.)


With best wishes to you and the film-makers